For Pre-College alumnus Jourdan Urbach, the intersection of medicine and music was the ability to help other people. Having started the violin at age 2¾, he began organizing concerts for hospital patients when he was 7, and before long the Long Island native had created a nonprofit organization, Children Helping Children, which has raised $4.7 million for global neurological health care over the last 11 years. There are now chapters in the U.S., Guatemala, El Salvador, and Australia. These days the Yale sophomore—who’s majoring in music performance and composition—maintains an active performance schedule, has started another nonprofit (to help college students create philanthropic ventures), and continues to raise money for health care. Urbach recently stole a moment to speak with The Juilliard Journal.
You’ve played violin since you were a toddler; when did you start being interested in medicine?
When I was 7 I read the autobiography of a pediatric neurosurgeon called Gifts of Time, and I was so compelled by it that I wrote the author, Fred Epstein, a letter, which said something like, “Dear Dr. Epstein, My name is Jourdan Urbach. I am 7 years old and a devoted neuroscience student and concert violinist.” Fortunately he answered, and he invited me to Beth Israel North, where he worked. That visit was the first time I’d had contact with patients with brain disorders, and I knew at that point that what I wanted to do with my life was help them. I thought the road I would go down was medicine, but since having an M.D. was 20 years away, music was the only road I had. That’s how Children Helping Children was born.
When I was 9, I met a 13-year-old patient named Jason, and he was someone I could really relate to. He was a concert pianist, but he was always in and out of the hospital with recalcitrant spinal tumors. He couldn’t practice when he was in the I.C.U. because there wasn’t a piano there. I thought, “We’re going to do a concert and we’re going to buy a piano for Jason and the rest of the kids in the ward.” That spring of 1999, I produced the first Children’s Concert for a Cure, in a local high school auditorium. We got that piano and we raised thousands of dollars that became a surgery fund to fly indigent children in from all over the world who had never received a quality of care like this to have their brain tumors removed.
You’re now an artist in residence for the U.N. Council on Arts for Peace, and it seems like your work in general has been much more political lately.
Music is a tool that causes great enjoyment among a lot of people, and it can be performed on the concert stage, the ward, and the world stage, too. One way to use the arts to foster peace is by getting people from traditionally conflicting cultures in a room and having them play music together—and realize that music, while not an international language, is a universal form of expression. Children Helping Children has shown how music revolutionized health care for organizations that don’t have traditional means of fund-raising. Now we’re showing how it can resolve disputes.
Musicians in North and South Korea can’t be in the same room together, but [through the U.N. program] we have a type of Skype on steroids called MagicJack, which allows one person to conduct from L.A. and have musicians playing at the U.N., in Seoul, in Pyongyang, and Beijing while an audience watches in Chicago. It creates such a powerful statement when there’s a huge emotional connection between players and the geographic and cultural differences are no longer issues.
Are you moving away from medicine?
I’m moving toward fostering an understanding of all the positive change we can create. We don’t have medical degrees, but we do have our skills: we can play, we can teach. All of those are components in this plan to make the world a better place.
Do you still want to become a doctor?
No. It’s simple math. I can do research probably at a level that’s subpar to someone who’s really devoted their life to it and just be that one person. I could be a neurologist in a hospital and diagnose patients or be a neurosurgeon and operate. Or I can do what I truly love, music (not that I don’t love the sciences), and fund dozens of labs and open centers where hundreds of doctors can provide care. How selfish of me would it be to be that one person when I support all these hundreds of people?
How do you find time to practice with everything else that’s going on in your life?
It’s what I love to do and it’s what I do on a day-to-day basis. It’s part of my job. It’s a practical equation. I have my schoolwork and my philanthropic endeavors, I run a large recording studio [at Yale], and I practice and perform. I have the time management worked out very precariously, but it’s allowed me to stay at the top of my game in each of those fields. And I’m sure if I added another [field], I would fall off the top of my game. But that’s where I sit for now.
Was it a hard decision not to go to a conservatory?
No. When I went to college, I didn’t know what path I’d be taking, whether I’d be going to med school or becoming a musician. And even though now I know I’m going to be carrying on as a musician, I truly believe in a liberal arts education. I wanted to learn about poli sci and study German, and learn about the finer points of neuroanataomy. I’m glad I did it, although I’d love to come back to Juilliard and get a D.M.A.
Does anything still surprise you when you perform for patients?
Some of the most surprising things come in the research, which continues to point to the fact that music is a part of us and that it’s super important to our recovery and our physical and mental health. The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan has the largest music therapy program in America, which Children Helping Children funds, and researchers there have shown a precipitous drop in recovery time and post-operative pain when pediatric patients were exposed to music.
One concert that had a life-changing effect on me early on was when I played for a little girl named Jessica who was in a catatonic postoperative state. About a minute or two into the piece, she moved for the first time since her neurosurgery. It was a huge deal: alarms went off, doctors came running in. You don’t have to see it, you can look at the [research] numbers and tell how important music is. But when you do see it, the kids’ reactions make it entirely worthwhile. And knowing that science backs it up also makes it entirely worthwhile, especially as a former scientist.
—Interview conducted by Susan Jackson